A r c h i v e d  I n f o r m a t i o n

Education Reforms and Students at Risk: A Review of the Current State of the Art - January 1994

Family Characteristics

Family structure. Although it is widely believed that children from "broken homes" have a higher incidence of academic and emotional/behavioral problems than other children, research findings are mixed. An analysis of the 1986 NAEP data indicates that third graders living with one parent scored considerably lower than third graders living with both parents (Natriello, McDill, and Pallas, 1990, p. 23). Similarly, analyzing data from High School and Beyond, Ekstrom et al. (1987) find a significant correlation between single-parent homes and dropout rates for whites and Hispanics (but not for blacks). Babies born to unmarried teens appear more likely to experience adverse health- and education-related outcomes than babies born to older mothers (Brooks-Gunn and Furstenburg, 1986). Children of divorce may suffer emotional problems due to the stress of family break-up (Wallerstein and Kelly, 1980). Father absence is often viewed as especially harmful to the self-esteem and emotional development of male children (for a discussion, see Lamb, 1981). For example, divorce may have a more severe and enduring impact on sons than daughters (Hetherington, Fetherman, and Camara, 1981). And young black males in father-absent homes may be more likely than other youth to join gangs (Biller, 1971). Other studies show no significant relation or, perhaps surprisingly, a negative relation between "broken" homes and academic or emotional problems. In a comparison of the characteristics of children rated as "high risk" and "at risk" based on teachers' evaluations, Larson (1989) finds that there is no significant relation between family "intactness" and degree of risk for educational failure. In fact, in Larson's study, low-income children with divorced parents are somewhat less likely than low-income children from "intact" homes to be rated as high risk (p. 22). Similarly, contradicting the findings of Ekstrom et al. (1987) described above, a more recent analysis of High School and Beyond data indicates that the effect of father absence on dropout is nil for all gender/ethnic groups except for non-Hispanic white females, who are significantly more likely to drop out if a father is present in the home (Fernandez, Paulsen, and Hirano- Nakanishi, 1989, p. 39). Several studies have also suggested that family atmosphere rather than family composition is most predictive of dropout (e.g., Stroup and Robins, 1972).

Anecdotal comparisons of children from "intact" and single-parent homes may be biased. Guttman, Geva, and Gefen (1988) find that teachers and students are more likely to report that the child shown in a film exhibits academic, social, and emotional problems if they are told the child's parents are divorced than if they are told the child comes from an "intact" home. As Guttman, Geva, and Gefen warn, stereotypes about "broken homes" may adversely affect children: Well-adjusted children from healthy single-parent homes may "live down" to the low academic expectations of school staff. And troubled children from single- parent homes may have their emotional problems falsely attributed to their family structure, while the actual source of their difficulties -- which may be centered in parenting practices, neighborhood environment, or school climate -- may never be identified and addressed.

Does family structure influence achievement? It makes intuitive sense that (holding parenting skills, support systems, and other background factors constant) two-parent homes might tend to offer more resources, role models, and adult supervision than single-parent homes. And it appears obvious that adolescents should delay parenthood until they are ready for childrearing responsibilities. However, we should be cautious about making generalizations regarding the severe effects of single-parenthood or divorce on children. Many researchers may fail to control adequately for the influence of parental education, age, or socioeconomic status, and they may fail to consider the impact of stigma. Furthermore, we must keep in mind that "non-two-parent household" refers to a variety of family configurations that range from foster care placements to isolated single-parent families to single-parent families connected to -- and sometimes living with -- multigenerational networks of relatives. Thus, comparisons of the effects of two-parent and non-two-parent households on children may lead to dubious and imprecise results.

Extended family and friends. We do not mean to suggest that childrearing by an isolated, overwhelmed adult is the ideal parenting situation for children. On the contrary, research suggests that a stable, supportive adult network is important to parenting and child development. However, two-parent households are not always stable and supportive, and single-parent households are not always isolated and overwhelmed. The support of friends and extended family may help bolster the resilience and resources of both single-parent and two-parent families.

Outings with adult male relatives may positively influence the academic performance of male students from single-parent (mother-only) homes (Riley and Cochran, 1987). And the support of family and friends may lessen the impact of divorce, loss of job, or changes in health on mothers' ability to provide a warm, interesting home environment to their infants (Pascoe and Earp, 1984). However, if extended family ties drain resources such as living space, food, and parental attention from children, these ties may in some cases place children at risk: Some studies suggest that high-risk students are more likely than other youth to live in homes with numerous relatives and nonrelatives (e.g., Larson, 1989, p. 22).

Severe abuse or neglect. Family interactions are probably more important than family composition in child development. Children who have suffered physical or sexual abuse are much more likely to exhibit depression or antisocial behavior. Self-destructive acts such as hair pulling, head banging, and self-cutting are often indicators of severe abuse or neglect (Green, 1978).

Infants whose parents lack warmth and stability and fail to provide educational stimulation (e.g., teaching the child new words) are at risk of learning and emotional problems (Werner and Smith, 1982, pp. 24-35). Infants who suffer from neglect may also be at risk of health and developmental problems (Kempe and Goldbloom, 1987, pp. 312- 335). In a longitudinal study examining the relation between risk factors and behavioral problems in young children (N=190), Sroufe and Egeland (1989) find that parental neglect or abuse of infants is related to the development of aggression, withdrawal, and hyperactivity in the pre-school and elementary years.

Although many severely abused children become remarkably well-adjusted adults, battering places children at increased risk of lifelong emotional/behavioral problems, impaired intellectual functioning, and permanent physical or neurological damage (Elmer and Gregg, 1967; Martin and Elmer, 1992; Perry et al., 1983). In a longitudinal study of battered children (N=19), Martin and Elmer (1992) report that severely abused children develop relatively high rates of drug use. Adults sexually abused as children may exhibit sexual dysfunction, suicidal behavior, and difficulty establishing healthy relationships (Gelinas, 1983).

Child abuse rates appear higher among the poor than the middle class and wealthy. However, no one knows the actual rates of child abuse. Parents and children may be reluctant to describe instances of abuse, and hospitals may be reluctant to report abusive parents with high socioeconomic status (Hampton and Newberger, 1985). Many child abuse studies have had disproportionate percentages of poor families in their samples, thus it is often difficult to untangle parental abuse or neglect effects from poverty effects. Some of the developmental problems attributed to parental misconduct may be caused by poverty (e.g., poor nutrition, high mobility, unsafe surroundings).

Some studies suggest that sick or disabled children are also somewhat more likely to suffer parental abuse or neglect. For example, weak, fretful infants may be less likely than healthy, responsive babies to attract positive parental attention (Steele, 1987, pp. 97-98; Werner and Smith, 1982, pp. 31-33, 56-59).

Child abuse and welfare services are often overwhelmed with the number of children that need assistance, thus many cases of severe abuse/neglect may be inadequately investigated and addressed (Barth and Berry, 1989; Dugger, 1992a). Due to limited resources for monitoring and follow-up, interventions such as foster care placements may, in some cases, actually increase the danger of bodily or emotional harm (Dugger, 1992b).

Negative family climate. Battered and abandoned children are the most obvious, but not the only, victims of harmful home environments. Chapin and Vito (1988) find that family interaction styles on the extreme ends of cohesion and adaptability (i.e., either too much or too little "togetherness" or too many or too few rules) are significantly related to academic or emotional/behavioral problems.

Family climate may also play a role in substance abuse. Harkins, Linney, and Forman (1989) find that low family cohesion, high conflict, a high incidence of deaths and divorce in the family, and parent's permissive views of alcohol use characterize the families of youth at high risk for substance abuse. Other researchers find a strong correlation between youths' alcohol use and the drinking habits of their parents and siblings (Onestak, Forman, and Linney, 1989).

The stress of living with a parent suffering from anxiety or mental illness may also place children at risk of emotional or developmental problems (Ghodsian, Zajicek, and Wolkind, 1984). Poverty often places incredible stresses on low-income parents, thus poor children may be somewhat more likely to live with a parent suffering from anxiety or depression. Analyzing data collected in an urban pediatric center, Orr and James (1984) find that over 50 percent of low-income, black, single mothers who live alone with their children suffer from depression. This finding confirms other reports of high depression rates among black women and low-income women (Molnar, 1988, as cited in Molnar, Rath, and Klein, 1990, p. 115; Belle, 1982; Pearlin and Johnson, 1977).

Effective parenting practices. What family characteristics are associated with the development of strong academic and behavioral skills? In a study of young people from low- income black homes with varying family structures, Clark (1983) finds that the parents of high academic achievers set firm but not harsh rules, seek information about their children's academic progress, enhance literacy skills through activities such as reading and word games, and model an optimistic, assertive approach to life. In Clark's study, the two-parent and single-parent families that had these attributes produced higher achieving students, while the two-parent and single-parent families that lacked these characteristics produced less successful students. Similarly, Goldenberg (1989) describes how assertive parent involvement may significantly influence student achievement. Over the course of Goldenberg's case study, the children who improved their reading skills received encouragement and/or home tutoring from their parents.

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